FuzeHub spoke with Jason Barrett, the president and head distiller at Black Button Distilling, a craft distilling company in Rochester, NY, about how it pivoted its business from spirits to sanitizer during the SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) pandemic.
Black Button Distilling has a workforce of 92 people who normally make four to five thousand bottles of vodka, gin, or bourbon a week. During the pandemic, they are now producing 70,000 bottles of medical-grade hand sanitizer a week. That’s 2,800 times the normal capacity of their plant.
So how did they do it?
About a month ago, many private businesses had to send their staff home. With the possibility of a shelter-in-place order looming, Jason Barrett was worried about yeast colonies. Left unattended, those yeast colonies could have catastrophic effects on their equipment and business. But more so, Barrett feared for his employees, and what it would mean for them personally, to be out of work for so long.
The next day, when the FDA put out its guidelines on how to produce hand sanitizer, Black Button decided they were not only capable of making hand sanitizer, they had a moral imperative to do so. In this way, Black Button could keep their staff employed and do good for the communities around them. The FDA recipe lays out a straightforward process taking a high-grade ethanol, mixing it with glycerol and hydrogen peroxide, and bottling it in a certain way according to their rules.
“If you’re familiar with the chemicals and have the training and equipment to do it safely, it’s not that different than making a batch of chocolate chip cookies. But you need to have the equipment, safety gear and building with explosion proof lighting,” Barrett said during the interview.
The process is not complicated, but it’s very technical. The bigger focus for Black Button has been the supply chain: getting the packaging, labels, and sourcing ingredients. The company has an extensive network of contacts as a result of their involvement in the industry and going to trade shows. So, they were able to pull those contacts together quickly and knew who to call for equipment.
“If we can protect the firefighters, police, doctors, nurses, and nursing homes and help flatten the curve by making as much sanitizer as we can, we know it will help our community in a big way.”
Three days later they had sourced all of the ingredients, some coming from their own warehouses. The vodka that was going to become their Lilac Gin became their first test batch of sanitizer. They made the test batch and got 5,000 bottles to the hospital that first week.
The next week they bought more supplies and were able to increase production to 15,000 bottles, then 35,000 the week after, until they were making 70,000 bottles a week. Each day, Barrett’s employees would find ways to increase production to make more sanitizer. They also bought two new bottling lines and had them installed over the weekend. Some of their brand ambassador staff also stepped up and learned how to become bottlers.
“It wasn’t a one man show; 92 people stepped up and worked around the clock and are continuing to work around the clock. I feel very blessed to be their leader,” Barrett explained.
How are they keeping their employees safe?
Black Button has instituted a number of measures to keep their employees safe. The plant is on medical lockdown and only those who are absolutely required are allowed inside the facility. Barrett himself has not been in the facility for two weeks. It’s his longest absence in seven years of operating the distillery. His partner, Jeff Fairbrother, is there every day leading the employees through their shifts.
There is a two-shift system. Each shift self-reports symptoms, has employee temperatures taken and goes through a decontamination process before beginning its work. Each shift begins by thoroughly cleaning the facility under the assumption that until you clean it yourself, you don’t know if it’s clean. Then they run production for their shift, clean the facility once more, and exit through a door opposite the one the next shift is entering. There is no contact between shifts.
They have provided personal protection equipment for staff, either by purchasing it or trading with other manufacturers in the area producing this type of equipment, which includes masks, gloves, and eye shields. Black Button also educates employees on how the virus is transmitted as a key part of their operations.
Black Button Distillery has a GoFundMe campaign set up. Why?
The GoFundMe campaign allows Black Button to donate more of its sanitizer to essential organizations like free clinics and homeless shelters who could benefit from the sanitizer, but don’t have the budget to buy it. Black Button doesn’t have the budget to simply donate it.
The business is not particularly profitable right now. They have the most competitive sanitizer price in town at $10/bottle wholesale and $15/bottle retail. With retail sales, they have to account for credit card processing fees, packaging, and shipping costs.
So, by using the GoFundMe campaign, they’re able to have people buy bottles for those who cannot buy them themselves. All of the money collected will be used to hand out hand sanitizer to communities in need.
In fact, the first delivery was sent out last week. Even though the GoFundMe campaign had not reached its goal, Black Button has faith that it will – and is covering the difference in the meantime. You can donate to their GoFundMe Campaign by clicking here.
Life after COVID-19
Once daily life begins to return to normal, Barrett estimates it will only take three weeks to return to their normal distilling operation. During those three weeks they will order grain, revive yeast colonies, and restart their fermenters.
Right now however, they still have some of their operation dedicated to fulfilling orders placed by liquor stores that are still open and doing curbside pickup. It’s important to keep their products on the shelves and at the top of customers’ minds.
For manufacturers who want to join the fight against COVID-19 but are unsure how to, here is Jason Barrett’s advice:
“It’s looking at your own capabilities, and seeing what the need is. So, a friend of mine runs a plastics company and now they’re making face shields. Hickey Freeman Suits is now making masks that they are shipping to hospitals from suit cloth. Everyone and every business, if they look at their capabilities and what is needed, can decide to step up and do what society needs done; I think Americans have the propensity to do what is right.”
Learn more about Jason Barret and Black Button Distilling here.